Home cooks can beat food waste. So where do we start?
Thriftiness is the foundation of many great cuisines – not least Britain’s. It’s time to reconnect with these traditions and cook our way out of a frighteningly casual habit of wasting food, says chef Dan Barber
Let’s be honest: food waste is not news. Not in the UK, at least, where the media covers the topic with impressive regularity, and chefs and industry leaders have raised awareness through innovative campaigns. You may have heard that more than a third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste, or that consumers in high-income countries discard 222m tonnes of food each year. And that just shy of a third of the world’s farmland produces food that is never consumed, a staggering loss not only of nutritional potential, but also of natural resources.
There are countless factors contributing to food waste from field to marketplace. But some of the most glaring examples take place on – or, more to the point, off – our plates.
You could say the statistics speak to a broken way of eating: food systems that allow, and even encourage, people to eat high on the hog, privileging certain coveted ingredients, while discarding others. (Go ahead: blame America – it’s at least partially our fault; our culinary excesses are increasingly exported to the rest of the world.)
That’s a sombre diagnosis, but an empowering one as well: what’s clear is that consumers have enormous potential to make a change. So where do we start? What can the home cook do to tackle food waste?
Having studied – and savoured – my share of British food over the past year, I’d offer that one answer is rooted in your own culinary traditions.
Today, we preach about the uneaten food on our dinner plates; but some of Britain’s most iconic dishes were conceived from what was left behind. The bounty of the Sunday roast was ingeniously repurposed into the next night’s bubble and squeak or shepherd’s pie (what doesn’t taste good the next day, smothered in mashed potatoes?).
This waste-not philosophy extended to animals as well. Long before UK chefs made nose-to-tail an international movement, the country’s cooks and farmers were finding ways to celebrate the rich flavour of the lesser cuts, in the form of black pudding, steak-and-kidney pies, and – most famously – haggis. (Scotland’s national dish may be a controversial culinary hero, but it’s hard to imagine a dish that does better service to the whole sheep.)
In search of more culinary inspiration? I found some at teatime, when I learned the history of Yorkshire curd tart. Those curds were a byproduct – the fresh remains from making cheese. Instead of seeing waste, locals saw delicious opportunity. Or look no further than the jar of Marmite in your kitchen cupboard. That polarising British invention was born of the same kind of culinary ingenuity – not a chef’s but a chemist’s – through the discovery that discarded brewer’s yeast could be made into something desirable.
This familiar culinary narrative – wherein the food chain’s byproducts were reimagined and absorbed by regional (and then national) cuisines – is not unique to Britain. The greatest food cultures in the world evolved in exactly the same way: applying culinary technique to elevate the uncoveted, making the most complete and delicious use of every ingredient. For centuries, that’s defined the cook’s craft – not just because it didn’t make sense – economically or ecologically – to throw things away, but also because, through creativity and technique, people were able to unlock incredible flavour.
It’s hard to overstate the point: today, people may think of eating “waste” as a novelty exercise or a passing culinary trend (or, in my case, the inspiration for a restaurant pop-up), but really, it’s the basis of cuisine – codifying a way of farming, cooking, and eating that responds to the demands of a landscape.
How do we make these traditions accessible for everyday eaters? The first step is simple: cook. I mean that in the simplest of terms. We all know that cooking for yourself and your family invariably means wasting less. But we also need to stretch a bit, and practice more of the right kind of cooking. Truly transformative cooking – the kind that sees as much value in tripe as tenderloin – requires more time in the kitchen, and more technique. From sauteing to stock-making, we’re going to have to rely on this kind of culinary craft as we look for new ways to make use of what would otherwise be thrown away.
Lettuce butts? Roasted in olive oil, they take on the smoky crunch of Brussels sprouts. The liquid left over from a can of chickpeas? Turns out, what we’ve been pouring down the drain is actually a vegan miracle ingredient, capable of making the airiest meringues. Squash stems, sardine bones, spent grain – the list goes on. Approached with care, creativity and a bit of British culinary thrift, these byproducts of our food system can become celebrated ingredients in their own right.
Instead of waste, we’ll call it dinner.
Root-to-fruit is the new nose-to-tail
• Peel and roast broccoli cores; thinly slice cauliflower cores into a salad; puree carrot tops to make a peppery pesto vinaigrette.
• Ask your farmer (or your grocer) for the bruised and split seconds. Split tomatoes, bruised peaches – these “unsightly” items are often literally bursting with flavour. Go ahead and ask for the rejects. Your tomato sauce and peach preserves will be 100 times more flavourful.
• Subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agricultural farm) and challenge yourself to use every ingredient you’re given in your weekly or monthly allotment. Soon enough, you’ll start thinking more creatively in the kitchen.
• Buy local grains: In the UK, half of all wheat goes to livestock feed. Let’s stop using grains for feed and start using them for food, especially underusedtilized grains, like rye, millet, barley and oats.
• While you’re at it, buy whole grains.
We don’t often think about the parts of the grain that are discarded during the industrial milling process. Incorporating more whole grains in your cooking and baking minimises that hidden waste, and it’s 10 times more delicious than just the white stuff.
• Support grass-fed veal. A byproduct of the dairy industry, the male offspring of dairy cows are often slaughtered after birth. Let’s cook with them instead and create a new economy for the dairy farmer.
• Keep an inventory. Take stock of the ingredients in your refrigerator, organised by when they need to be used. That’s what many professional kitchens do, and it helps to dictate the next week’s menu.
- Dan Barber is a chef, author and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants in New York. His pop up restaurant WastED, is now open at Selfridges in London.
About wastED: For three weeks in March 2015, Dan’s Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village reinvented itself as wastED, a pop-up dedicated to the theme of cutting food waste, where every week, guest chefs served daily specials using overlooked byproducts. Now Dan has brought wastED to these shores: at London’s Selfridges until April 2, drawing inspiration from the UK’s already well-established food waste movement and showcasing chefs from across the UK and Europe. ■